Tuesday, August 3, 2021

The Well

Where to get it: Creator's website

What's this, an actual physical object, sent to me by a blog reader? I am so completely honored and humbled that I'm going to feel like a real ass if I have to say anything bad about it. . .

Lucky for me, then, that The Well is pretty great. First of all, it's just gorgeous as an artifact. It uses black and white to a very striking effect, especially with the pencil-style monster drawings, and I don't know much about paper, but the cover is very smooth and pleasing to the touch. I'm not sure there's really such a thing as a prestige softcover, but if there is, then this is it.

The system is slight, almost to the point of nonexistence, but it's also extremely clever. For most actions, you roll a single d6 against a target number, but you can get bonuses by risking injury to your character, giving even routine rolls a sense of genuine stakes. And if you fail a roll, your failed roll still reduces the difficulty of future attempts for the same task.

It gets to the heart of rpg mechanics as a decision engine - you roll the dice to determine whether the GM has permission to say "yes" or "no." Except, in this game, the GM's options are more like "yes" and "later." True failure is always going to be on the players' terms. "Success" is inevitable, but both time and risk are resources that can run out, and a big part of the game's strategy lies in recognizing when an action will take too long or result in too much Stress.

It's elegant the way the mechanics mesh with the story. You play "gravediggers," a grudgingly legal class of mercenary adventurers who venture into undead-haunted catacombs. It's an important civic task, because the undead are a serious threat to human life, but your only pay is the treasure you manage to loot from the tombs of your ancestors. The system guarantees that you'll have plenty of ability to push farther and farther into the ruins of the past, but also ensures that if you press your luck too far, you'll wind up limping home while terribly injured, permanently traumatized or, worst of all, empty-handed.

The feeling I get, especially with the provided GM tools, is of a roguelike video game. Which I guess brings us full circle, because roguelikes themselves were inspired by tabletop dungeon crawls. The Well is a game of managed risk and careful resource management that hearkens back to the earliest forms of the hobby while still honoring a more modern, improv-esque social contract of "yes, and." It's a lot to pack into 120 pages, and if there's one thing I admire most about this book, it's the economy of wordcount. There are a lot of potential adventures in this little book, and plenty of room to grow both the setting and the system, whether in homebrew material or official supplements (I could easily use 101 more treasures or a full bestiary, for example).

Which brings us to the setting. I liked it, but it was thoroughly contrived. No, wait, that's not right. I liked it because it was thoroughly contrived. That's the part that reminded me most of a roguelike,actually. You've got this gameplay loop that obviously came first, and then an entire world built around it. In this case, literally.

The titular "Well" is a giant hollow shaft going an indefinite distance underground. It's ringed by a spiral staircase and every so often, a door appears. It's unclear where these doors came from, and at first, there's nothing behind them, but through judicious use of magic and brute force, human beings can tunnel out an elaborate civilization, which they have to do constantly, because there's some mysterious force that reanimates the dead as flesh-hungry monsters. Every 50-100 years or so, the people of Bastion have to abandon the top layer of their city and migrate down the Well, lest the dead overwhelm the living (and they can't just burn the bodies, because that leads to something worse).

The setup, then, is that the higher you go in the Well, the farther back in human history you go, to old abandoned cities, filled with reanimated corpses that have had centuries to grow in power and mutate into strange new forms. I.e. it's "an environment that justifies the simple tradition of higher levels being more dangerous."

It's more of a clever answer to a riddle than it is spectacular worldbuilding,and despite the sidebars' suggestions, I don't think it's even possible to come up with satisfying answers to the setting's big mysteries (chief of which is, of course, "what's the deal with this big, fucking well"). However, clever counts for a lot, and Bastion is a fine base of operations, with just enough intrigue to give your between-dungeon-crawls downtime a necessary bit of spice. Every setting should be lucky enough to have such a well-drawn Adventure Town.

Overall, I'd say that The Well is exactly the sort of book I love having in my collection, while also being exactly the sort of book I'd never think to buy myself. It's going to have a pride of place in my collection.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of the most interesting stuff about this setting lies in the ways people adapt to living around a giant, underground well. However, there are a few more general things that could fit in nearly any fantasy setting. My favorite was the "Mysterious Metal Lozenge." Swallow it and it will heal any single wound, even going so far as to replace lost limbs with strange, living metal prostheses. A priceless treasure, to be sure, but an even cooler bit of fantasy imagery. More games should make their utility effects this otherworldly.


  1. I can't tell you how much joy I feel reading your analysis of my creation. Thank you again for this project.


    1. It was my pleasure. I really was incredibly moved by the gesture.